인삼 Insam, the Korean ginseng

The Medicinal Properties of Korea Insam (Ginseng)

            Ginseng is a root vegetable whose shape resembles the human body, and its name (pronounced insam in Korean) contains the Chinese characters for ’man’. Korean ginseng is also known by the names of Korea’s last two royal dynasties: Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties’ ginseng. Its scientific name is ’Panax Ginseng C.A. Meyer,’ panax being a composite term formed from the Greek words pan (all) and axos (medicine) , which also gives us the English word ’panacea.’ Altough Korean ginseng belongs to the same botanical genus as the product grown inJapan, China, the US, and Russia, substanial differences in quality and efficacy mark Korean ginseng as the best in the world.

            Ginseng first appears in historical records about 1500 years ago. Opinions differ as to when ginseng was first grown as a crop, but it seems likely that this was first attemped during the Goryeo (918-1392) or early Joseon (1392-1910) periods.

            Korean ginseng was first introduced to the West by Dutch merchants in 1610, and is also said to have been taken to England by traders of the British East India Company. When the effects of wild ginseng came to be known, Westerners began to think of ginseng as a cure-all medicinal root. In 1711, the French missionary Pierre Jartoux (1668-1720) produced an illustration of Korean wild ginseng, and in the book Joseon published by the Belgian author Goschen in 1902, Korean ginseng is described as a product so rare and precious that it had been presented as a gift to the French king Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715). That the French philosopher and author of Emile, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), was fond of Korean ginseng, is recorded in his works, while in 1996, when France’s former president Francois Mitterand died, the newspaper Le Monde  reported that although doctors had given Mitterand three months to live, this had been extended to seven months by the consumption of Korea Insam (Ginseng).

            These are just a few examples of how the medical marvel of Korean ginseng has come to be known far and fide. The ancient Chinese medical text New Agricultural Manual , compiled around the 5th century, states that ’Ginseng strengthens the five viscera, stabilizes the mind, makes the eye clear and the body nimble, and promotes longevity.’

            Recent research has startled the medical world by showing that ginseng is effective against a wide range of conditions including fatigue, stress, arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure and blood sugar levels, aging, impotence, alcoholism, and skin conditions such as pimples, freckles, and eczema.

Ginseng varieties and cooking recipes

            As ginseng comes to be sold on the worldwide market, there is a general misapprehension that Korea Insam (Ginseng) comes in two varieties, white ginseng (baeksam) and red ginseng (hongsam), though in fact these are not different plants. Ginseng is known by a variety of names depending on the methods by which it is processed and preserved. In its natural form as harvested from the field, ginseng is known as susam; when this susam is dried it becomes baeksam; when soaked for 10 to 20 minutes in hot water at 80-90oC and then dried, it is taegeuksam; when steamed and then dried it is called hongsam. Since susam contains about 75% water, it cannot be kept for long and can easily spoil on its way to the market, and so it is treated in various ways to prevent this. In processing susam into baeksam or hongsam, its composition is inevitably affected, but the change  is very slight, and the medicinal properties are not greatly affected. Baeksam and hongsam have almost all the efficacy of fresh ginseng. 

            Ginseng is used as an ingredient in various food and drinks. Powdered ginseng is added to hot water to make ginseng tea; ginseng is steeped in rice wine to make ginseng liquor; and togheter with dates and glutinous rice, ginseng is used as a stuffing for young chickens, which are cooked for a long time to make ginseng chicken stew (samgyetang).

            Besides these, the most widely known products made with ginseng include tea, extracts, capsules, porridge, and honeyed, candied or powdered ginseng.

Ginseng varieties

Susam:  When ginseng is picked from the ground and used without processing, it is called water ginseng (susam). Since the ginseng is not dried, it is also known as a fresh ginseng (saengsam). Susam contains about 75% water and cannot be kept in this form for more than a week. In particular, it can easily get damaged or decayed during the distribution  process, and this is why it is usually processed to allow storage for longer periods.

Baeksam: When susam is dried without cooking by the use of sunlight, hot air, or other methods, it is known as baeksam, and depending on the shape of the dried product, it can be further classified as straight ginseng (jiksam), half-bent ginseng (ban-goksam), or bent ginseng (goksam). Straight ginseng is simply baeksam that has been peeled and dried in its original straight shape; in half-bent ginseng, the ’legs’ of the root have been bent against its ’body’ before drying; and in bent ginseng, the root has been dried with not only the limbs but part of the body rolled into a circle.

직삼 Jiksam

반곡삼 Ban-goksam

곡삼 Goksam

Hongsam: When susam is steamed or otherwise cooked without peeling, and then dried, it is known as hongsam. Hongsam is classified by the quality according to the shape of the dried product, as first grade (cheonsam), second grade (jisam), and third grade (yangsam). The process of steaming releases medicinal agents which make hongsam the most efficacious form of processed ginseng, and recent research has discovered that hongsam is effective against the enemy of modern man, environmental hormone dioxins.

Taeguksam: Taegeuksam is made by steaming or parboiling susam in boiling water before drying. Reducing the moisture content of the ginseng to below 14% yields a very firm product that can be kept for long periods.

Processed ginseng products

Powdered Red Ginseng: A 100% pure ginseng product made by grinding hongsam to a powder. Can be taken in doses of about 2g with hot or cold water, or steeped in honey.

Powdered Red Ginseng Capsules: 100% pure hongsam powder encased in a gelatin capsule for convenience. Take three capsules at a time with warm or cold water.

Red Ginseng Granule Tea: Red ginseng concentrate is processed into convenient granules to make this high-quality tea with strong flavor and aroma of concentrated ginseng.

Red Ginseng Tablets: These pills are made of 100% hongsam powder. Take three at a time with warm or cold water.

Red Ginseng Extract: A product made of 6-year-old hongsam with addition of taurine, vitamin C, and other biological agents. Take 2-3 pills, 3 times daily.

Red Ginseng Candy: With twice the natural ginseng fragrance of other candies, this product has both a sweet and a bitter taste. It can be enjoyed as a breath freshener by the whole family.

Honeyed Red Ginseng: In this candied form, ginseng can be easily enjoyed anywhere, anytime. Especially good after exercising, when traveling, or when tired.

Cooking recipes

Ginseng porridge: To 1 cup of rice, add 2 susam roots, 10 dates, and 10 dried chestnuts. Cook to a pulp, garnish with few pine nuts and small pieces of ginseng root, and serve with sugar or honey.

Broiled ginseng: Cut thick ginseng roots into thin diagonal slices about 5츠 long, then marinate them for a while in sesame oil and salt. Broil them, season them with with chili paste and other spices, then broil them again and serve sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Ginseng punch: Boil two ginseng roots to make ginseng water, then mix it with ginger water and cinnamon water and ad dried persimmon and ginseng slices.

Ginseng kimchi: Mix lightly salted ginseng with crushed garlic, chopped green onions, chili powder, salted anchovies, and glutinous rice paste. Add a little of the liquid from some kimchi, and leave for a day or so to mature.

Ginseng and cabbage dish: Combine two susam roots with 500g cabbage, 200g oysters, and 3 tablespoons soy sauce, and leave for some time. Mix in some crushed garlic and chopped green onions, and serve.

Source: the book Images of Korea, p. 96-104

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